On Nov. 6, the Trump administration announced it's ending a program that shielded more than 5,000 Nicaraguans from deportation. After living in the country legally for nearly two decades under a humanitarian program known as Temporary Protected Status, the Nicaraguans will be given 14 months to leave the country.
Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, also announced that the department is extending from January to July the deadline by which it will inform an estimated 57,000 TPS-covered Hondurans whether they, too, will need to leave the country.
Duke's announcement contained no news for the approximately 46,000 Haitians and 200,000 Salvadorans anxiously awaiting word on the fate of their protections under TPS, both of which are set to expire in the coming weeks. The Haitians' status, granted after the 2010 earthquake, is set to expire on Nov. 23. The Salvadorans' status, resulting from multiple destructive earthquakes in 2001 and renewed last year, expires on Jan. 8.
Most Americans have never heard of TPS, another in a list of acronyms from within the bureaucracy of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. As with Trump's decision to halt the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, TPS's cancellation would jeopardize the legal status of hundreds of thousands of migrants who have lived in the country legally for years, including tens of thousands living in Los Angeles.
L.A. has the highest number of Central American immigrants of any U.S. city, and the Los Angeles Metro area has the highest number of Salvadoran-born immigrants in the United States, at approximately 262,000. A report published last month by the Center for American Progress found that TPS holders are collectively raising families that include nearly 275,000 U.S.-born children.
Martha Arevalo, the executive director of the Central American Resource Center, known as CARECEN, was born in El Salvador and came to Los Angeles in the 1980s at age 11. She leads the group's work providing immigration legal services and policy advocacy.
Arevalo says she can gauge the rising level of concern in the volume of calls to the group's TPS telephone hotline and the number of people attending legal screenings and clinics in recent days. She spoke to the L.A. Weekly by phone to discuss the legal limbo affecting tens of thousands of migrants in Los Angeles.
(The interview that follows has been edited for clarity.)
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has reportedly advised Homeland Security that the conditions in Central America and Haiti that had been used to justify temporary protected status no longer necessitate a reprieve for the migrants.
To me, that analysis coming from the State Department is wrong, and the reasoning that has been expressed by the Trump administration for ending TPS makes no sense. These decisions are not based on what is best for this country or those countries. Unfortunately, I think that they’re based on racism and anti-immigrant sentiment and playing politics on the backs of the lives of immigrant families.
You’re talking about two countries in Central America that are suffering historic levels of violence. El Salvador is experiencing violence greater even than during the civil war [of the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s]. These are two of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere that have extreme levels of violence that can be directly attributed to the results of natural disaster after natural disaster, a devastating civil war and decades upon decades of U.S. military intervention that has wreaked havoc in that region. How can you say that the countries’ conditions have improved enough for these folks to be returned?
How many TPS recipients are living in Los Angeles, and who are they?
We’re looking at about 50,000 TPS holders in the Los Angeles area (based on data from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services). The vast majority are from El Salvador. The second largest would be Honduran. If you’re Honduran, you’ve had TPS for more than 18 years, almost 19 years. If you’re Salvadoran you’ve had TPS for more than 16 years, almost 17 years.
These are folks that have been in this country for most of their lives, who have grown roots here, who have families, who have businesses, who own homes, who are hard-working people who pay taxes and have a full life here in the United States. They also have ties to their home country and provide financial support to families abroad.
What would be the effect on Los Angeles if all the TPS recipients living in the city and county had to return to their native countries?
It would be devastating for Los Angeles — for the economy and for the social fabric. Central American TPS holders are integral to the local workforce, and especially to the construction and service sectors. These folks are active members of their communities, of their schools, of their churches; they’re our neighbors and co-workers. Many of them have U.S. citizen children, and it would be devastating to separate so many families. Their lives would be destroyed and their communities would change drastically.
Can anything protect Central Americans from Trump's latest order?
The biggest way is through legislation. We need to push for legislation to give a path to permanent residency to people protected under TPS. Congress could really solve this issue.
We’re holding a Southern California assembly of TPS holders Dec. 9 at CARECEN, where people will get the latest information about TPS and when and where they can plug in to help this campaign push for the extension of TPS and also for the legislation.
We were just in D.C. with about 300 TPS holders about three weeks ago, doing advocacy to push for legislation that would give a permanent solution. There’s a couple of legislative proposals that have come out in the last few days, one from Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-New York) and one that is being developed by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland).
There is no path to permanent residency with TPS except if you marry an American citizen or you have a U.S. citizen child over 21. It’s definitely not the majority; it’s a small fraction of the people who are protected under TPS. People should do a consultation with an attorney to see if by any chance they qualify.
What is the state of mind of TPS holders you have spoken to in Los Angeles with regard to the recent decisions of the Trump administration?
I think as a whole TPS holders are feeling incredible pressure and fear because their future is so uncertain. I think these folks are devastated at the possibility or the reality that their protection will end.
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For Honduran TPS holders, the not knowing and not having a decision is particularly difficult, because they have to wait for another six months and have to pay an additional $495 to renew their TPS and potentially have to do it again in six months. This is a real hardship for these families to be paying this amount of money every few months.
For Salvadoran TPS holders, they had heard a lot of rumors that there was going to be a decision, and no decision came. So we don’t know if for the Salvadoran community the decision will come in November or December or January. We’re not sure exactly where the administration is.
For the Haitian community, their program has already been terminated and their six months is about to end. So I think that reality is right in front of them, and they’re hoping to hear what their fate is going to be any day now, whether they will revert back to undocumented status and be subject to deportation or whether they’ll be given another extension.
These are the most vetted immigrants that you will find in the United States. Every 18 months they have to submit to an FBI background check. There’s a lot of current information on file about them and their families, and there’s always the fear that they’ll be subject to deportation. Homeland Security has said that they will not be a priority. However, we know that with this new administration everybody is a priority.